Monday, October 31, 2011

New Species Found Living Near Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents in Antarctica

Photo courtesy: PLoS Biology

It's easy to imagine that the seafloor miles beneath the icy surface of the Southern Ocean might be a cold, dark, inhospitable place, as devoid of life as the vacuum of space it so closely resembles -- but that couldn't be further from the truth. In a recent expedition near Antarctica, researchers from Oxford discovered dozens of remarkable new species thriving in one of the most extreme environments on the planet, alongside deep-sea hydrothermal vents where temperatures can reach over 750F.

For years, scientists have suspected there to be world of life forms thriving near underwater vents at the East Scotia Ridge, but so far the region has yet to be fully explored. Oxford researcher Alex Rogers and his team were among the first to scour the seafloor on a recent trip with a remotely operated vehicle, reports the Guardian. What they found there, at depths where sunlight has never reached, were a variety of creatures never seen before.

"One of the staggering things we did find is that these vents are completely different to those seen anywhere else – the animals existing at these vents are almost all new to science," says the lead-researcher, whose work was recently published in the journal PLoS Biology.

Among the most remarkable species found near the vents were striking pale octopuses, yeti crabs, snails, and barnacles; absent were the tubeworms, vent crabs, mussels and shrimp commonly found near underwater vents in the Pacific.
Rogers added that the vents revealed much about how deep water communities have evolved, and how they are distributed across the world's oceans. "In the space of a single eight-week cruise, we've changed our level of understanding of these systems completely. We've changed our ideas about how vent systems are distributed and the factors that may influence that distribution. What that tells us is that our level of knowledge of the deep sea in general is extremely poor indeed."

Despite the fact that these new species were previously unknown to science, experts say that they and countless others still undiscovered may already be under threat. For as inhospitable and unreachable as these remote ecosystems might seem, they are under increasing threat from human activities -- like from deep-sea fishing and oil exploration moving ever closer to the most hard to reach places in search of petrol.

Discovering the presence of these exotic creatures in places that seem so unlikely for life, however, is the first step towards ensuring their survival.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Single Bluefin Tuna Sold For $736,000

Photo courtesy: AP/Screen Grab

This has to be one of the most widespread cases of a type of meglomania I have ever seen - to think that one's eating enjoyment is so superior to all other considerations that it is their perogative to wipe out an entire species of mammals rather than stop eating them. Unbelievable!

The Bluefin Tuna is in the process of being fished to extinction: conservation scientists say that if current trends continue, stocks of the giant fish will almost certainly be depleted for good. Yet repeated efforts to get international bodies that regulate the trade of endangered species to take action have been blocked time and again. And this little news item offers a pretty good indicator of why:

Here's the Associated Press:
A bluefin tuna caught off northeastern Japan fetched a record price of about $736,000 on Thursday in an auction at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.

The price for the 593-pound tuna translates to $1,238 per pound — also a record, said Yutaka Hasegawa, a Tsukiji market official ... Shimogawara pointed out that, if sold at cost, each piece of the sushi could cost as much as $96.

It's also worth remembering that the sale of a bluefin tuna in an auction this time last year, also broke a record for fetching the highest price at that time.

Apparently, buying the fish for such an exorbitant price – even for the rare and typically exorbitantly priced fish – was partly a marketing stunt orchestrated by Kiyoshi Kimura, the president of Kiyomura Co., which operates a major sushi chain.

Nonetheless, it reveals just how high market demand for the endangered species continues to be, and how the excitement generated by what equates to a lavish luxury good continues to trump conservation efforts worldwide.

Many of the news reports circulating the headline-grabbing news scarcely mention the dire straits the fish is in, and instead elect to bask in the glitzy glow of the high price tag it fetches. That the bluefin is capable of snagging such a huge price tag is of course the primary reason that conservationists have been unable to stop its decline – such efforts have been blocked by Japan, of course, where the fish is cherished in high-end sushi; but, also by European nations, where fishermen profit by selling the catch.

Cases like the bluefin are especially and pointedly depressing: We have here a case where an entire species will probably go extinct expressly to please the tastes of luxury consumers.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Indonesian Corals Grow With Help From an Electric Current

All photos: YouTube screen grabs

Corals have a whole heap of problems to deal with -- pollution, marine debris, warming water due to climate change, overfishing of important species that keep reefs healthy and so on. But there's one human technology that is helping, rather than harming reefs in Indonesia that are on the brink of dying out.

Discovery News writes, "In the turquoise waters of Pemuteran off the north coast of Bali where the project was launched in 2000, a metal frame known as "the crab" is covered with huge corals in shimmering colors where hundreds of fish have made their homes."

That "crab" cage is electrified, and a small, harmless electrical current is helping to stimulate growth. In fact, corals can grow 2-6 times faster on these cages than on other natural surfaces.

Rani Morrow-Wuigk, a 60-year-old German-born Australian used technology created by German architect and marine scientist Wolf Hilbertz in this area to bring back the corals.
Hilbertz had sought to "grow" construction materials in the sea, and had done so by submerging a metallic structure and connecting it to an electric current with a weak and thus harmless voltage. The ensuing electrolysis had provoked a build-up of limestone, in a kind of spontaneous building work. When he tested out his invention in Louisiana in the United States, Hilbertz saw that after a few months oysters progressively covered the whole structure, and colonized the collected limestone. More experiments were carried out and the same phenomenon was confirmed for corals.

Called Biorock, the technology has some real potential. Rani set up 22 structures at first, which were successful enough that now around 60 cages are set up in Pemuteran bay. The structures seem to help the corals resist warming temperatures and other stressors that would otherwise wipe them out -- and staving off bleaching is one of the most important factors in keeping coral reefs alive.

Discovery News reports that the technology and the resulting bounce-back of the corals has helped bring in tourism and boost the fishing industry, so it is a winning technology for everyone.

Take a few minutes to watch the video of this reef. It's worth it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Christmas Trees to be Recycled Into Fish Habitat

Photo courtesy: US Forest Service

Recycling Christmas trees has usually meant taking them to a central location to be chipped. The resulting mulch is then used in local parks, beautification projects, and the like. However, a new use for old Christmas trees has been found.

Around the country, Christmas trees are recycled for an unlikely purpose: they make for good fish habitat.

From southern California to South Carolina, fish and wildlife agencies have been collecting Christmas trees with plans to use them in lakes and waterways to create protective habitats for small fish.

In Wyoming, the trees will be dropped through designated holes in the ice at Ocean Lake in late January.

In South Carolina, Christmas trees will be used in Lake Hartwell. “By recycling used Christmas trees in Hartwell Lake, we provide cover for fish and enhance nursery habitat for juvenile fish,” Jess Fleming, a park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the Anderson Independent Mail. “The trees are also beneficial to aquatic insects, which are essential food for most fish species.”

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jeff Ross said that lakes contain woody habitats that rot away with time, and Christmas trees can help replenish those habitats.

Similar programs exist in Georgia, Montana, and other locations all around the country.

Christmas trees are also used to boost habitat for land animals, and for coastal wetland restoration projects.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Did You Know...

People sing "Jingle Bells" at Christmas; but, the carol was actually written by James Pierpont in 1857 for a Thanksgiving program at a Boston Sunday school. He originally called it "One Horse Open Sleigh".

Christmas celebrations focus on good food; and, in the Middle Ages, the feasting involved ten courses that began in the middle of the afternoon and continued until midnight. Today, North Americans don't eat all day; but, they do consume 24 million turkeys and 112 million cans of cranberry sauce a year.

In the olden days, candles on Christmas trees looked beautiful, but, they could be dangerous. In 1895, American Ralph Morris got the idea to use electric lights instead.

People from different walks of life didn't mix much on the ocean liner, Titanic. For example, first-class passengers used the front part of the big ship's deck as their promenade area, while the second-class passengers used the rear deck.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Another Land Grab in Africa?

Tree-planting in Mayange Village near Kigoma, Tanzania, where thousands of people would be displaced—some of them refugees from Burundi with over 40 years of established lives, according to the Oakland Institute. Photo courtesy: TreesForTheFuture/CC BY 1.0

The Oakland Institute — the think tank that revealed the connection this summer between Ivy League universities and land grabs in Africa — is now voicing concern about the support the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania is lending to a land deal in that country that would displace more than 160,000 people.

According to the Oakland Institute [PDF], the stated goal of the project is to commercially develop a site — which encompasses lands that have served as refugee resettlement areas since 1972 — for large-scale crop cultivation, beef, and poultry production, and biofuel production.

The institute adds, "Agrisol’s vision is to accomplish this through industrial-style agriculture employing biotechnology and other high-technology inputs to be supplied by AgriSol’s business partners, including Monsanto, Syngenta, and other powerful global industrial agribusiness conglomerates."

The key player locally is AgriSol Energy Tanzania, which is a partnership between Iowa-based Agrisol Energy, LLC and Tanzania-based Serengeti Advisers Limited. This month, the Oakland Institute released a brief highlighting eight myths about AgriSol.

Meanwhile Alfonso Lenhardt, the U.S. ambassador, recently defended AgriSol's activities in the Rukwa and Kigoma region using one of the very myths mentioned in that brief. According to the Daily News in Tanzania:
"Agrisol have not grabbed any land but were actually invited by the Prime Minister when he visited Iowa state two years ago and saw how American technology can produce sufficient food and energy from farms," Lenhardt argued as senior media stakeholders expressed concern over allegations of land grabbing by Agrisol in western Tanzanian regions.
Here's what the Oakland Institute has to say about food security and how AgriSol stands to benefit from the deal: "While claiming to benefit Tanzanians and contributing to the country’s food needs, AgriSol’s internal documents reveal its intent, which includes agrofuel production and export markets."

More specifically:
While pitching the project as in the best national interest of Tanzania, AgriSol’s Tanzanian cohorts fail to mention AgriSol’s demand for “Strategic Investor Status” to receive incentives including a waiver of duties on diesel, agricultural and industrial equipment and supplies; production of agrofuels, and request of the government to commit and provide a timetable for the construction of a rail link for Mishamo.

AgriSol will generate significant profits through the project. While it intends to invest $100 million over a 10 year period, if corn is cultivated on only 200,000 of the 325,000 hectares, net profits for the company could be $272 million a year, an amount which nearly equals the total budget of Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture. If they receive Strategic Investor Status it would include an exemption from corporate tax, currently 30 percent of this amount.

• AgriSol’s feasibility studies call for it to negotiate with the government for input subsidies, which for now are targeted for the smallholder Tanzanian farmers. If accepted by the government, such a demand will divert scarce public resources from smallholders to agribusiness.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hen Adoption Drive Saves Thousands of Battery Hens

Photo courtesy: © zigwamp

When I read this article, I had to reprint it in memory of a truly great pet that was killed by an unleashed neighbour's dog - Henny Penny.

While the holiday season, marked by festive family gatherings and belt-testingly bountiful meals, just might be the most joyful time of the year, for the millions of factory chickens who end up on our tables, the air is decidedly less merry. But amid the season's great fowl-feed has come a bit of good news for a fortunate two-thousand former battery hens in Coventry, England. Thanks to local chicken advocates and heaps of hen-loving residents, a sizable flock of birds once slated for the slaughterhouse now have real homes following the largest chicken adoption drives ever conducted in the UK.

On New Year's Day a new chicken-welfare law will begin to require farmers to provide more humane conditions for their battery hens -- by making modest upgrades to the size of their cages, along with providing nesting boxes and perches for them to rest on. For some farmers, complying with the new ordinance means they'd have to reduce the number of chickens they keep. But instead of sitting by and watching the birds be killed for the sake of the bottom-line, animal advocates in England's West Midlands County pushed to find the surplus hens new homes throughout the community.

With the help of the British Hens Welfare Trust and bird devotee Ian Farrar, two-thousand would-be chicken dinners were gifted a new lease on life as part of one of the largest re-homing efforts of its kind. From across the region, hundreds of locals volunteered to become caregivers to the formerly unloved battery chickens.

“These are the last hens and they’re going to die otherwise because any hens remaining after New Year’s Eve will have to be killed. The response has been amazing," Ian Farrar tells the Coventry Telegraph. “We always knew that people in the Midlands love their hens.”

This isn't the first time Farrar has gotten involved in such a chicken-friendly adoption program. In the last few years, he's helped find over 30 thousand unwanted hens new homes across the UK -- though this is recent effort, conducted in just the last few weeks of the year, is his biggest undertaking yet, thanks in part to an air-conditioned bus he's using to transport the birds from factory farms to loving homes.

“It’s the biggest hen re-homing event the country has ever seen. We’ve gone from hoping we could save a few hundred to having homes ready and waiting for all 2,200 girls the farmer has left, so not a single hen will be left behind. It’s really very heart-warming,” says Farrar.

Although for many this time of year might seem empty without a bird on the table, perhaps the true spirit of the season is better paired with a full heart and home rather than a full belly.


Monday, October 24, 2011

McDonald's Closes All Restaurants in Bolivia

Photo courtesy: © edkohler

I sponsor a small girl in Bolivia who's name is Yessica. Over my two years of sponsorship so far (I look forward to many more years), I have learned a great deal about the Bolivian people; and, have developed an immense respect for them. The child is so grateful for everything I send to her; and, responds promptly to thank me. I get so much lovely artwork from her and several communications a year. Apparently, this consideration for others part of being Bolivian. In the following story, Bolivia once again demonstrates that is an incredibly sensible country. No other country has managed to send McDonald's packing.

With over 31,000 restaurants serving 58 million people throughout the world every day, McDonald's pretty much wrote the book on how a corporation can conquer the world. But despite its global domination as a cheap and easy burger joint, the fast-food monolith proved no match against the people of Bolivia and its cultural standards of culinary decency. For 14 years, McDonald's attempted to court Bolivians into making a habit out of eating their processed menu items -- only to experience an overwhelming, nation-wide rejection. And as a result, for the first time ever, the cogs of McDonald's international burger-slinging machine have ground to a halt, forcing the company to close its doors in Bolivia in 2002. Bolivians, its seems, are happy enough without the Happy Meal -- but why?

As the Hispanically Speaking News reports, for well over a decade McDonald's, with eight locations in the South American nation of 10 million people, worked to win over the Bolivian public with its Big Macs and McNuggets, but consistently found itself losing money. So, in light of the loss of revenue, McDonald's Corporation made an unprecedented announcement: that it would close its restaurants in Bolivia -- making it the only country in the Americas without a McDonald's.

But what makes Bolivia different from nearly every other country in its apparent distaste for McDonald's fare? A group of filmmakers have attempted to answer that question in the documentary Why did McDonald’s Bolivia go Bankrupt? (in Spanish). According to a review from Hispanically Speaking News (in English), the McDonald's failure in Bolivia lies in the very marketing strategy that made it so popular elsewhere:
The documentary includes interviews with cooks, sociologists, nutritionists and educators who all seem to agree, Bolivians are not against hamburgers per sé, just against ‘fast food,’ a concept widely unaccepted in the Bolivian community.

Fast-food represents the complete opposite of what Bolivians consider a meal should be. To be a good meal, food has to have be prepared with love, dedication, certain hygiene standards and proper cook time.

One might be hard-pressed to find consumers even outside of Bolivia who wouldn't agree with that definition of 'a good meal', yet none have expressed it so profoundly by simply choosing not to eat at McDonalds. There may be something a bit snarky about celebrating a corporate failure, even if it hardly dents the fast-food giant's bottom line, but it's difficult not to judge Bolivia better off for having rejected a restaurant so often associated with a menu of dubious nutritional value and less than eco-friendly business practices.

Perhaps if we all valued our meals as much as Bolivians, McDonald's corporate health would suffer at a rate inverse to improvements in our physical health and the health of our planet, which is already so full of people too removed from the food they put inside them.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Whale Rescued 10 Years Ago is Seen Alive Again

Photo courtesy: Photo: Katya Kroch / IBJ via

All too often, I find myself blogging about environmental issues that carry a great deal of worry and stress surrounding them. Finally, an uplifting issue that should lighten any "earth muffin's" mind. I know it inspires me to keep fighting in my tiny little corner of the world.

One morning in November 2000, a large humpback whale was found stranded on a beach near Ubatuba, Brazil, clinging to life in the crashing surf. It didn't take long before a team was assembled of nearly one hundred fishermen, firefighters, biologists, and locals who began working tirelessly to return the struggling animal back to sea -- and after twelve long hours, they were successful. Still, as that whale slipped beneath the waves and out of sight, those volunteers could only hope their efforts were not in vain, knowing full well that the whale's chances of survival were slim. But now, after ten years of guessing, rescuers are finally sure the whale is alive and well -- because they've seen it.Sadly, beached whales have become an all too common sight in Brazil; this year alone, 95 animals have been discovered, only one of which was returned to the sea alive. For the rescuers who inevitably arrive to give beached whales a fighting chance, the work is daunting and the outcomes uncertain at best -- but for the first time ever, it has been discovered that their efforts can pay off.

The beached humpback whale in 2000, before being rescued. (Photo: Hugo Gallo/Aquário de Ubatuba)via

In 2008, biologists doing researcher in the waters off Brazil spotted a large, healthy-looking humpback whale with coloring that was startlingly similar to the one they'd rescued from the beach eight years earlier. To confirm this unlikely reunion, skin samples were collected and compared to those taken from the stranded animal in 2000. Now, after genetic analysis, it has finally been confirmed to be the same whale.

Never before has a rescued whale been re-encountered after so long at sea -- and the news is giving hope to those who continue to devote their time to saving beached whales.

"The confirmation of the survival of this animal for a least eight years after its stranding shows that, despite the low chances of survival, it is worth every effort to save the whales," veterinarian Milton Marcondes told Brazilian media.

The odds that a whale will survive after beaching, however, are still quite slim. Of the hundreds of whales that have become stranded over the years, only three large humpbacks were returned to the ocean alive -- and even then, it isn't known whether they survive for long or not.

In the past, some have questioned if efforts to save beached whales were worth the trouble, believing that the animals were sick or injured and would likely die in either case. But for the biologists and volunteers who struggle in the surf to rescue those majestic creatures in desperate need of a helping hand, the slightest chance of success is always worth their sweat, and often, tears.

And with a fleeting glimpse of one such rescued whale, swimming alive and free against the current and against the odds -- they can carry on knowing that they do not toil in vain.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Brazilian Oil Spills Remains Unchecked

Photo courtesy: © Skytruth

Things just keep getting worse for Chevron. First, a deepwater drilling mishap off the coast of Brazil last month caused thousands of barrels of oil to spill into the Atlantic, which only after some dodging did Chevron take responsibility for, followed by Brazil's petroleum agency deciding to suspend the company's drilling rights altogether. And then there are the fines which could end up costing Chevron close to $100 million. But lo, it gets worst yet. Today, the oil giant admitted that the situation is far from resolved as many had assumed. That's right, the leak continues, and Chevron's not sure when it can be stopped.

Weeks after the spill began, loosing an estimated 110,000 gallons in the waters 230 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Chevron moved to plug it with cement. Still, several hundreds of gallons continued to trickle up from the sea floor.

And now, nearly a month after their initial fix was put in place, Chevron Brazil's environmental supervisor Luiz Alberto Pimenta Borges told leaders that oil is still leaking, and that his company isn't sure quite how or when it can be capped.

"The amount of oil is becoming gradually smaller," Borges said at a hearing today. "We expect to have total control of the matter some time in the future. I cannot tell when because we are still evaluating the amount of oil to know how exactly it reached the surface."

This ongoing spill is Brazil's worst in recent memory, though many fear that it will hardly be the last. Allowing companies like Chevron rights to drill in the region's oil-rich Frade field was just one element of the nation's ambitious energy ambitions directed at becoming one of the world's leading exporters of petroleum over the course of the next decade. The latest incident serves as a unwelcome reminder of the dangers of offshore drilling; evidence of just how easily things can go wrong, and just how difficult they can be to right.

Friday, October 21, 2011

USDA Approves Genetically-Modified Corn

Photo courtesy: Lana_aka_BADGRL/CC BY 2.0

Follow the money. If you want to find the evil, follow the money. Another genetically-modified crop has been approved by the United States Department of Agriculture. The potentially organ-damaging corn is being brought to you by the fine folks at Monsanto who stop at nothing to keep the money rolling in.

Just in time for the New Year, the USDA has approved MON 87460, drought resistant corn. Approval discussions began last May upon fears that droughts could cripple the U.S. crop in a country where 40 percent of crop loss insurance is collected as a result of moderate to major drought.

Monsanto sees a high demand looming and dollar signs as a result, especially considering that corn growing regions lose 15 percent of their crops worldwide each year due to drought. Monsanto will begin crop trials in the Great Plains region of the U.S.

But tests have found Monsanto’s new genetically modified breed ineffective at its intended purpose. In fact, the USDA found that the crop didn’t perform well according to an article in The New York Times, which said that "[t]he reduced yield [trait] does not exceed the natural variation observed in regionally-adapted varieties of conventional corn."

But it’s not just an ineffective crop that creates a problem. It’s that the USDA is missing the ball entirely by deregulating another GM seed variety. Rather than continuing to approve monoculture crops for large scale production, we need to head back to our roots. The only way that farmers can adapt to drought conditions, which could occur more frequently as global warming looms, is by moving away from monoculture crops entirely. Just as you vary your investment portfolio, the same holds true for farming. Farmers are gambling on one or a few crops to remain intact even as our climate begins to change.

Depending on seeds of one or a few seed companies to feed the world is bad business and what’s more, these drought resistant seeds take farming out of the hands of the farmer entirely. Farmers can't even replant them because the seeds are patented. What happened to the intricacies of farming a wide variety of food crops?

Not to mention that this drought resistant corn has not been tested on humans. And while the crops are not entirely the same, other forms of GM corn have been shown to cause organ damage in mice.

This quick move toward deregulation isn’t just bad for our farming system, it’s also unclear what the health repercussions will be. And currently, the USDA has no standard for labeling GM crops, so you likely don’t even know when you’re eating them.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Japanese Tsunami Debris Hits Coast of Vancouver Island

The breathtakingly rugged shores of Tonkin Park in Tofino. Photo courtesy:

My heart is breaking. One of my two favourite places in British Columbia, Ucluelet and Tofino on Vancouver Island, are under attack. Most of the Vancouver Island coastline is pristine shore that stretches for mile after scenic mile. That is changing. We all know about the tsunami that wiped out the Japanese nuclear power plant and the debris that was washed into the ocean. That debris has been washing up on American shores for a while now and has just started hitting Tofino shores.

Here's the update so far.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, left, and John Anderson, show fishing buoys from Japan (set loose by the tsunami in March), that washed ashore in Forks, Washington. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO - Jim Ingraham via Yahoo!News

The B.C. government says it will begin working with national and municipal officials this January to prepare for the massive wave of debris heading to Pacific Northwest shores because of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Meanwhile, residents in the B.C. coastal community of Tofino are bracing themselves for the sad arrival of detritus from the devastating disaster, even while they debate amongst themselves whether the ruins have already started reaching the shore.

Julianne McCaffrey, a spokeswoman for the Emergency Management B.C., part of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, has confirmed the government is creating a Provincial Tsunami Debris Working Group.

She said the arrival of the debris, which some experts have argued covers an area the size of California, has raised some "complex jurisdictional issues," which the working group will clarify, so officials hope to identify key members by Jan. 6, 2012.

"In most cases, the federal government has authority in the water and immediate shorelines, and in most cases the local authority becomes the lead if the debris washes ashore in areas above the high tide line," McCaffrey said in an email to The Canadian Press.

"Occasionally, in the case of hazardous or human remains, it becomes provincial jurisdiction – which has not happened, so we cannot speak to hazards or issues that do not exist."

The provincial government's announcement comes as one U.S. expert confirms some flotsam, like 250-litre Japanese fishing buoys, has already landed on Pacific Northwest shores between Oregon and Alaska.

Computer models produced by the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii had predicted that by the end of September, the debris field was still about 483 kilometres northwest of the Midway Islands, but scientists confirmed in a December website posting that some objects, like the fishing floats, could have already arrived in Washington state.

Meantime, locals in Tofino, B.C., located on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, wonder whether or not flotsam — like plastic water bottles with Japanese writing, toothbrushes and even socks tied to the tsunami — has already arrived.

The massive flotsam field is tied to the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan March 11, a double disaster that left as many as 21,000 people dead and washed millions of tonnes of debris into the Pacific ocean.

The tsunami also swamped the Fukushima nuclear-power plant, leading to fears that some of the debris could be contaminated by radioactive material.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer from Seattle, Wash., said he has confirmed that as many as six fishing buoys have washed ashore between mid-Oregon and Alaska and are tied to the Japanese tsunami.

Ebbesmeyer said he has sent photos of the buoys to a Japanese news wire service, which has passed the photos on to fishermen who have themselves consulted with locals.

He said those locals have identified the buoys as coming from oyster farms along the Japanese coast where the tsunami struck.

Ebbesmeyer said he has received a less-than-positive reaction to his warnings that some of the tsunami debris is already here.

"I just feel like Paul Revere riding around and no lights come on in the house because that's what's happening," he said.

Perry Schmunk, mayor of Tofino, B.C., said he has no doubt that some of the debris he found on a recent beach walk with his family is tied to the tsunami. He plans to introduce a resolution to council this January calling for support from more senior levels of government.

Schmunk said everything he has found has Japanese writing on it.

"The most alarming thing is in 10 minutes I saw more debris than I've seen in four years total," he said.

Schmunk said a town like Tofino is not equipped to deal with such a massive influx of flotsam, noting it doesn't have enough staff nor enough space in the local landfill.

"I am . . . of the opinion that we need to be prepared for the worst," he said. "Let's say hypothetically that debris field does stay intact and makes it all the way right to our shores, then we need to be able deal with it."

Yet others in town are not entirely convinced flotsam from the tsunami has arrived.

Jean-Paul Froment, a local surf shop owner, said while the bottles he's seen have Chinese, not Japanese writing on them, the lumber he's found on local beaches has Japanese markings.

Froment said in the past month, more than 50 pieces of lumber with Japanese marking have washed ashore, far more than normal, and locals are talking about how much debris is arriving.

"It is originating from Japan. Again, how it got here, who knows," he said, noting it could be coming from boats, freighters or the tsunami.

Jeff Mikus, a commercial fisherman for more than 20 years, said he's definitely not convinced the flotsam is from the tsunami, saying he hasn't seen any more debris on the shores or in the water than normal.

"I think people are just looking more now because, you know, it's coming," he said. "People are more aware of it so they start seeing stuff on the beach and they think, 'oh, God,' and they see a little bit of, you know, some kind of Asian writing of some sort," he said.

Mikus said he regularly finds plastic floats, corks, water bottles and shampoo bottles, and added that most of the fishing gear he buys in B.C. is made in Japan and has Japanese markings on it.

Mikus also said people forget how many ships pass Vancouver Island and some of the debris could be coming from them.

"You'd think you'd see a lot of stuff that would have a lot more growth on it, algae and barnacles and whatnot after floating around in the ocean that long," he added. "The few pictures I've seen of stuff doesn't look like it's been in the water that long."

Mikus said he believes the bulk of the flotsam is still a long way away.

"There might be a massive cleanup going on here in a year or two."

Ebbesmeyer, too, said he's not yet convinced the flotsam that's washing ashore on Vancouver Island is from the tsunami.

"I saw pictures of that debris and I couldn't tell either," he said.

"It doesn't look like the debris I'm talking about. I'm talking about much larger debris, the size of 55 gallon drums, which has been positively identified. I couldn't identify that debris as being other than sort of local debris or debris from fishing vessels or perhaps debris from cruise ships."

He said he agrees with Tofino residents that the issue is very confusing.

Ebbesmeyer said he's concerned that some of the debris washing ashore on Pacific Northwest beaches could be contaminated by radioactive material, suggesting Tofino should have at least one Geiger counter to measure radioactivity.

He also said people should be respectful of what they find, which could also include human remains and sentimental objects, like pictures in wooden frames protected by plastics.

"It's not just trash," he said. "It's the lives of 20,000 loved ones and their families that's arriving. It's a crash scene. It's the scene of an immense jet airliner that's crashed, albeit late over here. You know. Be respectful. Treat it as a crash scene, a crime scene and go about it very, very carefully."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some Soda Companies Use a Fire Retardant in Their Drinks

Photo courtesy: Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

Brominated vegetable oil is patented as a flame retardant and it's banned in food all over Europe and Japan, but it's on the ingredient list of about 10 percent of sodas in the U.S. It's not in Coca-Cola, but is in Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange, and in some flavors of Powerade and Gatorade.

What brominated vegetable oil (BVO) does to soda is, Coca-Cola explains, "prevent the citrus flavoring oils from floating to the surface in beverages." The fruit flavors that are mixed into a drink would otherwise settle out. What BVO does when it's acting as a flame retardant is not much different: It slows down the chemical reactions that cause a fire.

The FDA established safety limits for the substance in the 1970s, but Environmental Health News reports about growing concerns that the limit was informed by reports put out by an industry group containing outdated and, as industry-generated information tends to be, less-than-comprehensive data.

EHN has the details:
After a few extreme soda binges — not too far from what many gamers regularly consume – a few patients have needed medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders, all symptoms of overexposure to bromine. Other studies suggest that BVO could be building up in human tissues, just like other brominated compounds such as flame retardants. In mouse studies, big doses caused reproductive and behavioral problems.
EHN explains that BVO was pulled from the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list for flavor additives in 1970, "bounced back after studies from an industry group from 1971 to 1974 demonstrated a level of safety," at which point the Flavor Extract Manufacturers’ Association (which actually exists — not to be confused with the government agency FEMA) "petitioned the FDA to get BVO back in fruit-flavored beverages, this time as a stabilizer, which is its role today."

Today, more than 30 years (and much animal testing, including on pigs and beagles) later, the approval status for BVO is still listed as interim. EHN reports that changing that status would be expensive and quotes FDA spokesman Douglas Karas saying it "is not a public health priority for the agency at this time."

With BVO banned in so many countries, there are feasible alternatives. And that brings us to the unsurprising but disturbing note on which the EHN story ends:
Wim Thielemans, a chemical engineer at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, said since the alternatives are already used in Europe "their performance must be acceptable, if not comparable, to the U.S.-used brominated systems." That means "the main driver for not replacing them may be cost," he said.

"It is a North American problem," Vetter added. "In the E.U.(European Union), BVO will never be permitted."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Veggie Oil-Powered Truck Hits 155 MPH

All photos courtesy:

In mid-November, the members of the Greenspeed club headed to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to put their Chevy pickup truck to the test. Stripped of all aesthetics, running on a '93 Dodge engine and burning an unorthodox fuel, it was there to challenge the land speed record for vegetable oil-powered vehicles: 109 mph. On its first run, it flew past that benchmark at 139 mph. On its second, it set the new bar even higher: 155 mph.

The journey to success was not a quick one. Dave Schenker founded the club at Boise State University with a group of undergraduates, with the intention of building the first super high-performance vehicle to successfully run on vegetable oil. He spent months raising the $125,000 from local sponsors to rebuild the old truck with the parts it would need to set a new record. He and the students spent much of the summer putting it together. They hoped to race in September, but couldn't get everything together in time.

The end goal was to prove that vegetable oil is a viable alternative to conventional gasoline and diesel. That's why Greenspeed went after the record with a used pickup truck and not a vehicle with the aerodynamics of a rocket and about the same level of practicality. Schenker wanted to "do something that everyone can relate to" said group member Seth Fueurborn.

But Greenspeed isn't happy with leaving things at 155 mph. The new goal is to refine the truck, putting on tires that can handle even higher speeds and installing a heat exchanger system so the vegetable oil can be heated to the necessary temperature inside the car rather than outside it. They're also going to focus a bit more on aesthetics, making the bare bones speed machine not only faster, but into something you could imagine passing you on the highway.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Spicing Up Your Diet May Help Prevent Cancer

Curcumin, a natural substance used to make turmeric, a chief ingredient in curry sauces, has been shown to be effective in reducing cancerous tumors. (

While researchers around the world continue searching for new and better treatments for various forms of cancer, they are also finding more evidence that simple changes in diet and lifestyle can, in many cases, prevent the disease.

The effects of smoking are well established, but many doctors now say bad eating habits, lack of exercise, obesity, and stressful living can also be big risk factors. One researcher thinks adding a little spice to your diet could also help.

In a research laboratory at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic, Bharat Aggarwal has been studying the medicinal use of spices, like the turmeric he grew up eating in his native India.

“These spices have been used day in and day out as a meat preservative, and these spices are anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-virus,” said Aggarwal. 

Much of his research focuses on curcumin, a natural substance used to make turmeric, a chief ingredient in curry sauces, which has been shown to be effective in reducing cancerous tumors. 

While some doctors scoffed at the notion of using a spice to treat cancer, Aggarwal persisted. And now, he says, other researchers are also showing good results. 

“There were at least half a dozen clinical trials that appeared last year alone on curcumin, where as little as 100 milligrams is enough to down modulate all the inflammatory bio-markers in people. We are not talking about rats or mice or anything,” Aggarwal added. 

But Aggarwal is the first to say that neither curcumin nor any other food provides a magic bullet to stop cancer. He advocates moderation in diet and lifestyle and the consumption of a variety of natural foods. 

“There are 800 different kinds of food items out there — 800! An average American eats no more than 10, so variety is the name of the game,” Aggarwal said. 

That is the same approach being taken by Atlanta chef Hans Rueffert, who demonstrated his salad-making skills at a recent Cancer Survivorship Conference in Houston. 

Rueffert is a big believer in using fresh ingredients and borrowing from every type of cuisine. 

“I think any good chef is constantly learning about different cultures, different cuisines, and you sort of take the best of each one,” Rueffert explained. 

But Rueffert is especially interested in healthy eating because he, too, is a cancer survivor, having lost his stomach and part of his esophagus to the disease. He acknowledges the irony, but he says that also gives his message more impact. 

“I know what radiation is like. I know what chemo is like. I know what surgeries are like. So when I am up there and talking about how these foods benefit you, I am not reading from some book. … I have lived that,” Rueffert said.

Bharat Aggarwal thinks investigating the chemicals in foods and spices will do more to prevent cancer than expensive research on genetic links. 

“These genes are going to be with us no matter what, so we are not going to be able to fix those, but that is where all the money is going,” Aggarwal said.

Aggarwal notes that spices like curcumin have long been known to promote health. “The natural compound is working very well, and it has been used for thousands of years, and it is very inexpensive,” Aggarwal added. 

Expense is an important consideration as the United States faces budgetary struggles and an aging population of baby boomers who are going to need more medical care in the years ahead.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Spending Time in the Outdoors May Improve Eyesight

Children playing outside in the sunshine. Photo courtesy:

Parents now have another reason to shoo their kids outdoors to play, along with making sure they get enough fresh air and exercise. In a study, Australian researchers found evidence that children who spent the most time outdoors were the least likely to suffer from myopia, also called nearsightedness or shortsightedness.

“Our evidence suggests that the key factor is being outdoors, and that it does not matter if that time is spent in having a picnic or in playing sport,” Dr. Kathryn A. Rose told Reuters Health. “Both will protect a child’s eyes from growing excessively, which is the major cause of myopia.”

Myopia has become increasingly common in recent decades, with more than 80 percent of people in some highly-educated groups being nearsighted, Rose of the University of Sydney and her colleagues point out in the journal Ophthalmology. Work that requires a person to focus on something close up — reading, for example — has been proposed to cause nearsightedness, they add.

To investigate how viewing activities at various distances might influence myopia risk, the researchers looked at 1,765 6-year-olds and 2,367 12-year-olds participating in the Sydney Myopia Study. Just 1.5 percent of the 6-year-olds were myopic, but 12.8 percent of the older children were. Both age groups spent about 2.3 hours outside each day, on average.

Time spent outside had no significant relationship to myopia prevalence among the younger children, nor did the amount of close work they did.

But among the 12-year-olds, those who spent more than 2.8 hours outside every day were less likely to be myopic than their peers who spent more of their time indoors. Children who spent less than 1.6 hours outdoors every day and more than 3.1 hours in near-work activity had double to triple the likelihood of being nearsighted, compared to kids who spent the most time outside and the least time in close-up work.

“We have not yet established why being outside is protective,” Rose said. “But a likely candidate is the high levels of light experienced outside compared to inside. Studies in animals suggest that retinal dopamine is released in response to light, and dopamine is known to be able to block eye growth.” Myopia is caused when the eyeball grows too long.

The researcher offers the following advice to parents: “Try to ensure that your children spend time outside because we have evidence that the more time they spend outdoors, the less likely they are to develop myopia. This is true, even if they are also doing a lot of close work such as reading and studying.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Fast-Paced TV Shows can Actually Inhibit Learning

Watching 'SpongeBob' adversely affected kids concentration, learning, and problem-solving. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images) via

Four-year-olds’ ability to concentrate, learn, and solve problems slows after watching fast-paced cartoons, according to a new study.

Young children have difficulty learning immediately after watching fast-paced television cartoons full of images and activities that are not possible in real life, according to a new study.

It’s what some people are calling the “SpongeBob effect.” SpongeBob SquarePants is a cartoon character whose surreal and improbable undersea adventures are watched by children around the world. 

University of Virginia researchers wanted to find out whether watching “SpongeBob” affected kids’ ability to learn immediately after seeing the show. 

To find out, a group of 4-year-old children watched either a short video of “SpongeBob” or a slower-paced and more realistic animated show called “Caillou.”

A third group of children spent time drawing instead of watching television. 

Afterward, explains researcher Angeline Lillard, they all took standardized tests designed to measure their ability to concentrate, learn, and solve problems — what psychologists call “executive function.”

“And what we found is that children who had been in the “SpongeBob” group were performing only about half as well as the other children. So they were at about 50 percent capacity.”

The 4-year-olds in this study are at a critical age when the prefrontal cortex is still developing. That is the part of the brain where problem-solving and related functions are located. 

Lillard says one reason why a show like “SpongeBob SquarePants” might affect learning is its combination of speed and content. 

“It’s fast-paced and it’s fantastical. So the child is needing to process all this new stuff really, really fast, and it’s difficult to process since it doesn’t really happen in real life.”

Lillard cautions that her study looked only at how young children learned immediately after watching the TV shows, so she cannot say whether watching these kinds of programs have a permanent effect on learning. 

“But I would say that parents might want to think about when children watch such shows and perhaps how frequently they watch them as well because they are certainly compromised immediately afterwards.”

Lillard’s study is published in the journal Pediatrics.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Please Don't...

There are some things we, as humans, do without thinking of the possible consequences of our actions. I have gathered a few no-nos; and, the reason they are more dangerous than you think.

1. Releasing helium-filled balloons. Releasing helium-filled balloons has become a very popular way of sending love and greetings to departed love ones. While those persons releasing the balloons feel a great sense of joy and comfort as they watch the balloons ascend toward the heavens, they are unaware of the havoc these balloons can cause. High-flying balloons have become entangled in low-flying airplanes' propellers and other moving parts causing great damage and injury to both plane and occupants. But, the damage is not limited to while the balloons are in the air. Eventually, they land and can become a danger to wildlife. Wild birds and animals can eat or become entangled in deflated, possibly damaged balloons. Animals that eat part of these balloons or become entrapped in the broken parts of them or the remaining string usually die a prolonged death.

2. Using a garburator: Garburators are wonderful ways to get rid of those pesky, disgusting food particles that always end up in your dishwater. However, this food leaves the sink and immediately enters the local wastewater system. The food may be ground so small you can barely see it; but, the nutrients it contains are only added to soup of treated wastewater. When this wastewater is released back into nature, it can be so full of added nutrients that it causes seaweed and algae to grow at a more rapid rate than normal. This can result in algal blooms that effectively kill the oxygen, fish and all other living creatures in their paths. Please empty your sink strainers into the garbage not the garburator.

3. Using plastic bags: Plastic bags are a definite hazard to wildlife. The handles of the bags are especially dangerous. Nosy wildlife, always on the lookout for food, can get their heads through the handles trapping the bag around their neck. In their panic to remove this monster from their neck, they can run around blindly leaving themselves open to injury or death. Again, there is the possibility of death through ingestion of parts or all of the bag. Please change to reusable bags; and, pick up and safely dispose of any plastic bags you might see outside.

4. Disposing of out-dated prescription medicines down the toilet: This may seem like a safe way to get rid of old and possibly dangerous medications; but, it is not. It has been proven that home tap water can contain small traces of medications the local water authority could not filter out. In other words, you could be getting small doses of things like heart medication or antidepressants with your sparkling glass of water. Keep in mind pharmacists accept all out-dated or unwanted medicines and dispose of them safely at absolutely no charge to the client.

5. Wash spills of oil, gasoline, pesticides, fertilizers and the like down the sewer storm drain: Most people do not realize that many sewer storm drains lead directly to fish habitat. There is absolutely no purification of the water from storm drains whatsoever before it hits the fish habitat. Obviously, if too much of these hazardous wastes are flushed into waters leading to aquatic ecosystems, these habitats could become dead of all life. It takes a little longer; but, please clean up spills of this sort in an environmentally-protective manner.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Derelict Docks to be Renovated for 2012 Olymics

london's pleasure gardens/promo image

London's 2012 Olympics are taking part in the east end of the city. One of the goals, and benefits, of the Games is the regeneration of this dingy, post-industrial, poor area: Housing, infrastructure, and new parks are now under development.

The newest park to be announced is the Pleasure Gardens. Derelict docks will be transformed into a 60,000 square meter waterfront park with wild and formal gardens, restaurants, cafes, art and cultural activities.

It's all part of the 2012 Olympic celebrations. Because of its location, close to the ExCel centre where the awards ceremonies will be taking place, 40,000 people a day are expected to pass through the area. During the Games it will be a cultural destination with non-stop entertainment for families, locals and tourists.

london's pleasure gardens/promo image

A festive atmosphere will be created with bands, outdoor acrobats, artwork and sculpture gardens. The east end of London, because of low rents, has a huge artistic community which is cutting edge, community-based and very sophisticated.

There will also be the wild meadows -- wild flowers, sweet peas, and blackberries that have been left to grow for the past fifty years on the docks.

One organizer said: "What that site gives you is a real journey from being inside a stark industrial city, to suddenly being in the country. There's a real sense of travelling to different landscapes."

The brownfield site was chosen for development as part of the Meanwhile London competition. It is hoped that the short-term development of the park into a thriving centre will serve as a magnet to attract new buildings and kick-start the regeneration of this area.

london's pleasure gardens/promo image

Pleasure Gardens were a Victorian creation. They were "summertime places where people from all walks of life could come together to listen to music, admire paintings, stroll, drink, flirt and immerse themselves in the culture that defined the vibrant period."

Between 1851 and 1884 there was one located at the very spot of the new one, called the Royal Victoria Gardens.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Did You Know...

Touching wine glasses dates back to a custom when medieval hosts were worried their drinks might have been poisoned. They not only touched glasses; but, a small amount of wine was exchanged and everyone took their first drink together.

Humans have a lot of body parts; but, hair is the only part that continually grows, falls out, and regenerates itself. Human hair grows at a rate of about 1/2 inch per month.

The purple finch is a lovely bird; but, it isn't really purple in colour. The very bright, showy parts of the bird are actually crimson.

The potato originated in the Andes Mountains of South America and was introduced to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors in the mid-6th century. They were sent around Europe as exotic gifts from the Spanish court.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Methane Plumes Found Under Arctic

Methane bubbles trapped in Arctic ice. Photo courtesy: Yahoo!News

Russian scientists have discovered hundreds of plumes of methane gas, some 1,000 meters in diameter, bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean. Scientists are concerned that as the Arctic Shelf recedes, the unprecedented levels of gas released could greatly accelerate global climate change.

Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences tells the UK's Independent that the plumes of methane, a gas 20 times as harmful as carbon dioxide, have shocked scientists who have been studying the region for decades. "Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of meters in diameter," he said. "This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It's amazing."

Semiletov said that while his research team has discovered more than 100 plumes, they estimate there to be "thousands" over the wider area, extending from the Russian mainland to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

"In a very small area, less than 10,000 square miles, we have counted more than 100 fountains, or torch-like structures, bubbling through the water column and injected directly into the atmosphere from the seabed," Semiletov said. "We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale — I think on a scale not seen before. Some plumes were a kilometer or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere — the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal."

Monday, October 10, 2011

World's Most Ancient Human Bedding Found

Study researcher Christopher Miller sampling sediments containing the ancient mattresses. CREDIT: Credit: Prof. Lyn Wadley via

The oldest known bedding — sleeping mats made of mosquito-repellant evergreens that are about 77,000 years old — has been discovered in a South African cave.

This use of medicinal plants, along with other artifacts at the cave, helps reveal how creative these early peoples were, researchers said.

An international team of archaeologists discovered the stack of ancient beds at Sibudu, a cave in a sandstone cliff in South Africa. They consist of compacted stems and leaves of sedges, rushes and grasses stacked in at least 15 layers within a chunk of sediment 10 feet (3 meters) thick.

"The inhabitants would have collected the sedges and rushes from along the uThongathi River, located directly below the site, and laid the plants on the floor of the shelter," said researcher Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Modern sedges growing on the uThongathi River near Sibudu excavation site.
CREDIT: Prof. Christopher Miller via

The oldest mats the scientists discovered are approximately 50,000 years older than other known examples of plant bedding. All told, these layers reveal mat-making over a period of about 40,000 years.

"The preservation of material at Sibudu is really exceptional," said researcher Christopher Miller, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany. [See Photos of the Ancient Beds]

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Warm Water Temperatures Affect Lobsters' Shells

Photo courtesy: Yahoo!News

Fishermen in Nova Scotia are reporting unusually high numbers of soft lobsters, which means a poorer quality of catch and less money for them.

Ashton Spinney says fishermen like him are landing more lobster this year, but the shells are not as hard.

"It's just something we've never seen before," Spinney, chairman of the LFA 34 management board, told CBC News.

Soft lobsters don't command top price. They are fragile and die quickly, and can't be exported to the lucrative European market.

"It's a concern because it makes it difficult to ship them and you have to take more precautions to keep them alive," Spinney said.

Spinney and others in the industry blame the water temperature. Where Spinney fishes, the water is 8 C, which is "unusually warm" for the season.

Warm water stresses the crustaceans, forcing them to grow quickly and moult more than normal.

The lobster science centre at the Atlantic Veterinary College warned that lobster caught in the area could be of lower quality this year.

The centre has been testing lobsters for shell hardness and other factors since 2004. It found seven of 10 sites had lower numbers of hard-shell lobsters than last year.

"As advised in the past, extra caution should be taken when deciding what product can be stored for later sale," the centre said in a report.

The fall lobster season has been open for a week. Already, Spinney said, the talk at the docks is how to keep thousands of kilograms of lobster alive long enough to get them to processing plants.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pesticide Companies Must Sart Taking Responsibility

A colony of honeybees. Photograph: Haraz Ghanbari/AP via

The 27th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster in India that killed 20,000 people will be commemorated by World No Pesticides Use Day. This year, it is also the start of a three-day public trial of pesticide companies by the Permanent People's Tribunal (PPT), an international opinion tribunal that has raised awareness of cases from Eritrea to Guatemala.

It will convene in Bangalore, India, to hear cases brought against the big six pesticide companies; Monsanto, Dow, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont, which control 74% of the global pesticide market. The PTT will invite the companies to defend an allegation of violating human rights. The World Bank estimates that more than 350,000 people each year die of unintentional pesticide poisoning - close to 1,000 people a day. Pesticide Action Network (PAN) International, which is spearheading the PPT, says that up to 41 million people suffer from adverse effects of pesticide exposure.

But it's not just people that have been killed and maimed by these toxic chemicals. Since a new class of systemic pesticide, called neonicotinoids - which move through the plant to the the flowers, attacking insects' nervous system on contact - appeared on the market two decades ago they have been linked to the worrying worldwide deaths of honeybees.

In Germany, Italy, France, and Slovenia, a Bayer-manufactured neonicotinoid, imidacloprid has been suspended as a seed dressing for corn following research showing it contaminated the pollen the bees collect and feed to their young and could, in laboratory conditions, impair honeybees' communication, memory and learning abilities. Beekeepers in Italy and France also blame another neonicotinoid, thiamethoxam, produced by Syngenta, for killing their bees and studies have shown how bees' flight could be adversely affected by the absorption of very low doses.

In the US, where a third of honeybees were wiped out in 2008, scientists have found imidacloprid at higher levels than had ever been reported before in the field. Although the mysterious disappearance of bees, dubbed colony collapse disorder, is likely caused buy a combination of factors, even the head of the US Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory believes that exposure to pesticides is a critical factor, along with parasites and poor nutrition.

"We call them the three Ps. If we have all three of them present in bees then they will be in poor health, but even having two of them could be problematic," said Jeff Pettis last year. Also last year a leaked memo from the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed that another Bayer pesticide, highly toxic to bees, had only received conditional registration and the company was instructed to conduct further field studies to assess clothianidin's threat to bee colonies. Seven years later it was still waiting.

In 2008, two-thirds of honeybee colonies along the Rhine, in Germany, died from the dust from a clothianidin seed treatment on corn that had drifted onto neighbouring field. Bayer and Syngenta continue to deny evidence of any link between these toxic products and the collapse of bee colonies.

PAN UK is inviting witnesses to give evidence at the PPT, but until the hearing begins PAN says it can't give out the their names. The defendants will be summoned to offer responses. Whether they turn up is unknown. You can watch the hearings live here.

The PPT, which cannot impose legal penalties, was set up in 1979 to raise awareness of human rights violations because there is no international forum empowered to hear and make judgment on cases of human rights violations brought against global corporations. In 1996, after the session of PPT on industrial hazards and human rights in Bhopal, the Charter on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights was adopted.

My opinion, and that of others, is that there is an overwhelming body of evidence pointing the finger at the sub-lethal impact of pesticides on bees, isn't it time that their creators were held to account?

After all, what is good for the environment is good for us. Without bees and other winged pollinators we face a very bleak future in regard to food security worldwide.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Japan Threatening to Dump Water Treated for Radiation Contamination into Ocean

Water on the floor inside Fukushima after a leak in an image released by Tepco. Water has been used to cool reactors at the plant. Photograph: Tepco/AFP/Getty Images via

The operator of Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant has said it is considering dumping water treated for radiation contamination into the ocean as early as March, prompting protests from fishing groups.

Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the utility operating the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which was hit by a powerful tsunami in March that caused the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years, said it was running out of space to store some of the water it had treated at the plant because of an inflow of groundwater.

"We would like to increase the number of tanks to accommodate the water but it will be difficult to do so indefinitely," a Tepco spokesman, Junichi Matsumoto, told reporters.

He said the plant was likely to reach its storage capacity of about 155,000 tonnes in or around March 2012.

Tepco plans to come up with possible ways to handle radioactive waste and present its proposals to the government's nuclear regulatory body for approval.

"The government should not, and must not, approve a plan allowing Tepco to dispose of treated water in the ocean," said Kenji Sumita, an emeritus professor at Osaka University who specialises in nuclear engineering.

"The reality is that semipermanent storage is the only solution available under current technological constraints. Tepco may have to find the storage space and look for a technological breakthrough in the coming years that allows it to condense and greatly reduce the volume of tainted water."

The admission is a setback for the utility, which appeared to be making progress in its clean-up after building a cooling system that no longer required pumping in vast amounts of water. It also built a system, drawing on French, US and Japanese technology, that decontaminates the vast pool of tainted runoff to supply the cooling system with water.

The company said representatives of a nationwide federation of fishing co-operatives had visited its Tokyo headquarters to protest on Thursday.

Tepco said it was still assessing the potential environmental impact of releasing the accumulating water, but that if forced to do so, it would discharge water expected to have the least effect on the environment.

Tens of thousands of tonnes of water contaminated with radiation have accumulated at the plant, 150 miles (240km) north-east of Tokyo, after Tepco, early in the crisis, tried to cool reactors that suffered nuclear fuel meltdowns by pouring in water, much of it from the sea.

"Our priority is also to look for ways to limit the inflow of groundwater into the buildings at the plant," Matsumoto said.

The operator estimates that due to the inflow the amount of water requiring storage is increasing by 200 to 500 tonnes every day.

The utility released more than 10,000 tonnes of water tainted with low levels of radiation in April to free up space for water with much higher levels of radioactivity, drawing criticism from neighbours such as South Korea and China.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Zoo Guard Kills Tiger For Its Whiskers

Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Working security at a preserve for big cats might seem like a pretty cushy job, considering how well-equipped the animals are in defending themselves against anyone or anything that may wish to harm them. But the danger to these endangered Bengal tigers was to come from within.

According to officials, a 48-year-old guard charged with protecting a group of endangered Bengal tigers poisoned an adult female to death before removing several of her body parts, including the whiskers which he somehow believed would enhance his sexual prowess.

The disturbing news surfaced in Chhattisgarh, central India, at a time when local authorities are diligently protecting big cats from extinction, mainly due to poachers.

The Malaysian Sun Daily reports that the security guard admitted to authorities that he killed the six-year-old tigress, whose body was found mutilated last week at a sanctuary in Chhattisgarh, central India. After being arrested, the guard told authorities that he removed the cat's claws, teeth, and whiskers, because he believes them to have magical medicinal properties.

The article went to say that a forest officer stated the guard believed the whiskers of the big cat species have medicinal value to enhance male sexual power; and, certain body parts of the feline help their possessor gain mystical powers.

Unfortunately, the guard's cruelty and misguidedness couldn't have come at a worse time for Bengal tigers. The big cats, native to India, are one of the most rapidly declining species on the planet; wildlife experts say there are only around 1,700 of the tigers left in existence -- and the future doesn't look promising. Threats from human activities, such as encroaching development in tiger habitats and poaching, continue to push tigers to the brink of extinction.

And evidently, not even the guards hired to protect them can be trusted.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

French Alps Losing Their Glaciers

Photo courtesy: Heather Cowper/CC BY 2.0

The French Alps were once the destination of the rich and famous; the beautiful people; and, those wishing to be seen. That may soon change. Climate change seems to be wreaking havoc with their once glorious glacial scenery.

Himalayan glaciers often get most of the media attention, in regards to the rate at which they are melting as our climate changes, but new research presented to the American Geophysical Union focuses instead on the French Alps.

According to this research, presented by BBC News, over the past 40 years French glaciers have lost 25% of their area. On Mont Blanc for example, in the early 70s glacier covered 375 sq. km. (145 sq.mi.), but today only covers 275 sq. km. (106 sq. mi.).

That rate of decline is an average however, the research shows. In the southern part of the French Alps glacier loss has been nearly complete, and in the Ecrins Massif the rate of retreat has been three times as great as in the Mont Blanc region.

As for the differences in retreat, obvious differences in altitude of the mountains, as well as differences in weather conditions and precipitation between region.

Despite (largely manufactured) controversy about how quickly glaciers are retreating around the world's mountain regions at large, due to less-that-ideal sourcing in the last IPCC report, the US Geological Survey has concluded that the world's glaciers are in retreat and climate change is to blame.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Did You Know...

Richard Millhouse Nixon was the first U.S. president whose name contains all the letters from the word "criminal." The second? William Jefferson Clinton. Some things speak for themselves, don't they?

The first product with a bar code was scanned on June 6, 1974 was a 10-pack of Wrigley's gum. That pack of gum is displayed in the Smithsonian Museum. I guess greatness comes in all shapes, sizes and flavours.

The liquid inside young coconuts can be used as a substitute for blood plasma. Now, this could save lives without the fear of contracting any diseases.

Donkeys kill more people annually than plane crashes. Who would have thought?

Monday, October 3, 2011

OTC Contact Lenses Can Cause Permanent Eye Damage

CONTACT LENSES: A young woman wears cat's eye contact lens. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recently warned that decorative lenses could damage eyes. Photo courtesy:

Contact lenses that are decorative and over-the-counter, such as glow-in-the-dark or striped lenses, could be damaging to the eyes, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Wearing the lenses could lead to infections, inflammation, vision loss, and general pain, the AAO added.

Many of the decorative lenses are advertised as being fashion accessories, toys, or cosmetics, but researchers say all contact lenses need to be fitted by an eye doctor. During Halloween, many young people purchase odd-colored lenses to go with their costume.

"Many people believe that decorative lenses don't require the same," said Thomas Steinemann, MD, professor of ophthalmology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a researcher with the AAO, in a statement.

“In fact, permanent eye damage can occur from using over-the-counter lenses,” Dr. Steinemann added. “Any type of contact lens is a medical device that requires a prescription and proper fitting by an eye care professional.”

Often times, they are advertised as “one size fits all,” or they say there’s “no need to see a specialist," which the AAO says is false advertising. level of care or consideration because they can be purchased over-the-counter or on the Internet.

"Consumers need to know that permanent eye damage can occur from using over-the-counter lenses," Dr. Steinemann said. "Personally, I have seen far too many serious cases in both children and adults from using decorative lenses. My most recent case was a patient who was only 12 years old."

If lenses are not properly fitted, they could scratch the eye, or if they are not cleaned, they could cause infection, and can lead to the swelling of blood vessels in the cornea. The AAO recommends having an eye specialist measure each eye before getting lenses.